ASHBURN, Va. — There are plenty of reminders about Trace McSorley’s football career at Briar Woods High School, ranging from plaques to team pictures to large signs on the facade of the building commemorating an incredible four-year run led by the quarterback.
Inside coach Charlie Pierce’s office is a small, framed photo collage from the opening game of the 2010 season.
“That’s where it all began,” Pierce said, with a smile and shake of his head.
In Pierce’s 11 years at Briar Woods, he has coached six players who became starters at major college programs, and one, Detroit Lions defensive back Alex Carter, who has reached the NFL. McSorley spent at least one year playing with all six, guiding Briar Woods to three state titles and nearly a fourth, before heading to Penn State.
McSorley, now a redshirt sophomore, will become the seventh when he makes his first college start Sept. 3 against Kent State after James Franklin named him the starter Wednesday.
For four years, McSorley befuddled opposing teams as a first-team all-state selection at both quarterback and safety. Briar Woods was a new school in a rapidly expanding part of Northern Virginia when Pierce became the first coach, but the Falcons quickly became an elite program.
McSorley set a Virginia state record for career completions and is in the top five in several other categories. He excelled in the classroom with a 4.0 grade-point average. He volunteered during his spare time, whether it was speaking to younger football players, working at a homeless shelter or raising money for a cause that became personally important to him.
“All of the things that go into the fabric of what you’re looking for in a perfect, cutout football player, he had it all,” Pierce said. “You envision someone and how you’d want them to be as a person and as a player or whatever, and Trace was that guy.”
Briar Woods planned to make running back Michael Brownlee the focal point of the offense in 2010. A “a short, stocky, chainsaw, all elbows and knees, hard-ass runner” as Pierce put it. He was going to be the focus, so McSorley could develop slowly as a freshman.
Brownlee broke his leg on his first carry of the season. The backup tailback left the game after nine carries with a foot injury.
“That was a crazy game,” McSorley said. “I just remember that whole bus ride I was so jittery and nervous. When Michael went down, the coaches were like, ‘OK, well, he’s hurt. So just go play.’ Things just kind of clicked at the end. Just thinking about it is giving me chills.”
Trailing by a point with less than 3 minutes remaining, McSorley marched his team 88 yards to set up a field goal and a 10-8 victory. It was the first of 55 wins for McSorley.
“It was so cool,” said Wake Forest tight end Cam Serigne, who is a year older than McSorley but has been one of his best friends since they Little League Baseball teammates. “Trace came in and we knew, at least his best friends did, that Trace was going to do what Trace does and take over.
“We just knew we were going to win, and he did that time and time again.”
Early in his freshman season, McSorley struggled to relay some of the play calls from the coach to his teammates.
“Just had trouble with some verbiage,” Pierce said.
To fix the problem, Serigne wore a wristband with the plays listed on it, and he called them out in the huddle until McSorley mastered the language.
Brownlee returned in the middle of the season and still ran for more than 1,000 yards. McSorley developed more rapidly than expected. Serigne and Carter, who went to Stanford and was a third-round pick by the Lions, became his favorite targets and were only sophomores.
Back-to-back-to-back state titles followed. McSorley set a Virginia state record for career completions with 693. He’s second in total yards (12,053, behind former Virginia quarterback/cornerback/return specialist Vic Hall), passing yards (9,981, behind ex-Alabama and Virginia quarterback Phillip Sims) and fourth in passing touchdowns with 111.
“Trace always kind of had that ‘it’ factor, or that awareness about him,” McSorley’s father, Rick, said. “If things were going wrong, he could just shuffle his feet a little and get the ball out. He’s had that since he was a 150-pound freshman.”
McSorley grew up with competitive role models. His father played college football at Richmond. His uncle played at Marshall.
Trace tagged along with his father to adult league basketball games when he was a young boy. Rick reasoned that watching his dad and being around those adults all the time helped develop his son’s competitive nature.
Serigne said he thinks it is a gene inside certain people, something that makes McSorley a “baller and a winner.” His high school coach first saw it in McSorley when he took part in a youth camp in 2008, and then when he quarterbacked the freshman team as an eighth-grader in 2009.
“He was everything you were looking for, on and off the field, as a competitor,” Pierce said. “Anything you’ve heard about him, it is probably true. If he got beat in a video game, like in ‘Madden,’ he was going to stay up all night and figure out the stuff so he can beat your ass the next time.”
McSorley’s mother is responsible for his willingness to help others, he said. She took him to a homeless shelter to volunteer when he was younger.
When he became the star quarterback at Briar Woods, McSorley became a popular invite to local youth football camps. Kids would ask him what it was like to play as a freshman, to play in state championship games. He talked to the players about his experiences. It’s something he continues to do.
“One thing my mom told me was that I was given some great athletic abilities,” McSorley said. “She would tell me to work hard on the field and see if that takes you somewhere, but the bigger part of the message was always to use what God has given me to help somebody else. Those words just always stuck with me.”
One cause became very important to McSorley, and because of tragic circumstances. Alex Carter was part of McSorley’s tightknit group of friends on the team. Cameron Carter, Alex’s little sister, died when she was 14 years old.
She was a Type 1 diabetic and died in her sleep during McSorley’s sophomore year.
“I remember when Alex’s sister passed,” Serigne said. “That was a really tough time for a lot of people. Trace has done a lot for the Juvenile Diabetes Foundation.”
McSorley’s father said there was a fundraising event for the foundation shortly after Cameron’s death, and Trace became heavily involved in organizing it and helping to raise money.
While players such as Serigne, Carter and Matt Rolin (Florida) were off to college, McSorley had a chance at history in his senior season. Only two other Virginia schools had won four straight state titles, and none with the same quarterback.
Briar Woods also moved up a level, from the third-largest classification in Virginia to the second, Class 5A. He had new favorite targets, including Brandon Polk, now a sophomore at Penn State, and Melvin Holland Jr., now a redshirt sophomore at Minnesota.
McSorley’s team reached the state championship game for a fourth consecutive year, but two key players, including Polk, were injured during the first half. L.C. Bird High School, the defending champion in Class 5A, defeated Briar Woods, 35-28. McSorley passed for three touchdowns and led the defense with 10 tackles and an interception.
A McSorley pass deflected off the hands of Polk’s replacement and into the arms of a defensive back to help set up the game-winning touchdown. A photo that ran with the story in the Washington Post the next day captured McSorley with his head on Pierce’s shoulder.
Pierce has that photo on his phone and calls it is his favorite, even if it was a sad moment.
“Trace said, ‘Coach, I’m sorry I let you down,’ ” Pierce said. “He led the team in tackles and was playing QB and he had a bum shoulder. He got his shoulder operated on after the season was over, but he never missed any time.
“I just, ‘Trace, you didn’t let us down. We let you down.’ ”
For the past two seasons, McSorley mostly watched and waited. Christian Hackenberg was a top NFL prospect from the moment he stepped on campus, and he left after his junior season.
McSorley’s first significant game action came last season in the TaxSlayer Bowl against Georgia. Hackenberg exited with a shoulder injury early in the second quarter, and McSorley nearly led a frenetic fourth-quarter comeback. He threw two touchdown passes in the final quarter, but his final pass was knocked down near the goal line as time expired and the Nittany Lions lost 24-17.
“When he came in against Georgia, the game was on ESPN, and I remember Joey Galloway saying, ‘Penn State has no chance now without Hackenberg. No chance,’ ” Pierce said. “That really fired me up. I felt like if the defense had stopped Georgia a little sooner, Trace was going to take them down and tie the game.”
McSorley also excelled in the spring game, completing 23 of 27 passes with four touchdowns. Granted, it was against the second-string defense, but it was also a nice test run in new coordinator Joe Moorhead’s offense.
Pierce said McSorley has dealt with questions about his height for his entire career. He is listed at 6-foot, and his father confirmed he is “a solid 6-feet,” but that leaves him shy of being a prototype at the position, though players such as Drew Brees and Russell Wilson have proven to be exceptions.
Several schools, including Stanford and North Carolina, wanted McSorley as a safety. Carter’s father, Tom, played cornerback for nine years in the NFL.
“Tom would work out with Trace and Alex,” McSorley’s father said. “Tom would tell him, ‘Trace, you are the perfect size and have the skills and athleticism to play safety or corner at the next level. Quarterback, you’re always going to have that challenge because of your size, but go for what you want to do.’ He had that mindset that he was going to go for it.”
McSorley has used his two-year apprenticeship to physically develop. He has put on more than 50 pounds since he was a high school freshman. His father proudly pointed out he’s the strongest player in the quarterback room at Penn State, able to power clean 320 pounds and bench press 325.
“He knows people are going to question his arm strength, so he works his tail off to strengthen his core and doing the right things like not throwing just with his arm but throwing with his legs,” McSorley’s father said. “His opposite hash throws are BBs now. If you watch Christian Hackenberg for two years and realize how he can throw, then you know what needs to be done.”
Even with Hackenberg, the offense was a mess at times the past two seasons. The offensive line is vastly deeper and more experienced. Moorhead’s system, which emphasizes alternating the tempo to keep a defense off balance before the snap and quick throws from the shotgun, could help alleviate some of the pass protection issues.
Penn State could have its deepest and most talented receiving corps in at least a decade. DaeSean Hamilton and Chris Godwin each has one season with at least 70 catches, and there are four options behind them who were 4-star recruits. Sophomore Saquon Barkley broke the school record for rushing yards by a freshman with 1,076, and newcomer Miles Sanders has drawn comparisons to Barkley from teammates.
There is plenty of hope for this offense, but Penn State needs a new quarterback to direct it.
“I’m very confident for Trace,” Serigne said. “I think Penn State is a very lucky school. They have a winner at quarterback.”